When Billy Payne, Atlanta’s Olympic architect, looks back on his crowning achievement from 20 years ago, one of the bright spots is Gainesville’s participation in the Centennial Games.
“Without exception, the back and forth with the organizers in Gainesville and us at ACOG was the best of all relationships we had,” Payne, who was head of the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, said in a recent phone interview. “They were 100 percent committed. We saw all the signs of their desire to be part of the Olympics.
“It was clear to us the community in Gainesville and Hall County wanted to be part of the greatest movement in sports.”
Payne recalled how the rowing and sprint canoe-kayak events came to Lake Lanier for what he called “truly a Georgia Olympics,” and the impact the Games have had since.
Lake Lanier emerged as an option for the events after earlier options in Stone Mountain and Rockdale County were deemed unworkable. The decision was made in late 1990 to bring the events to Lanier.
Lake Lanier was a familiar site to Payne, an Athens native, but its competitive course on the northern arm of the lake at the Chattahoochee River wasn’t something he first envisioned. Yet when he saw the venue taking shape, he knew it would become a first-class facility.
“Growing up, I spent time going to Lake Lanier, but I always saw the lake from center of the lake south. I didn’t know that such a perfect straightaway existed,” he said. “I was thrilled when I first saw it, though we knew it would take a lot of work to get it done. But the people who were proponents in the community made it clear they would get it done, and they did.”
Payne said he made two visits to the Lake Lanier venue during competition, recalling how Australian fans “made a lot of noise,” and viewing the venue by air from a helicopter. More than 180,000 fans attended the rowing and flatwater paddling events over two weeks.
“It was crazy fun,” he said. “To this day, I believe we sold more tickets in Atlanta than any other Olympics.”
And though the venue is nearly an hour’s drive from Atlanta where the games were centered, Payne noted how local residents stepped in by serving as host families to many competitors and visitors.
“That’s the long-range result in how it changed communities,” he said. “You see the Olympics up close, and it makes it more fun for everyone. It introduced the sport in a different way, and that’s one of the principle reasons Gainesville has, better than anyone else, perpetuated the Olympic ideal.”
Payne also recognized that while nearly all Olympic venues in metro Atlanta have been repurposed or abandoned, the Lake Lanier venue remains in use, including recent upgrades that have brought in new competitive events.
“It proves how Gainesville can continue to hold world-class competition,” he said. “I’ve followed the new improvements. It’s not surprising to see how it has been kept alive.”
The legacy of the Olympics in Atlanta and Gainesville remains a point of pride 20 years later for Payne, who now serves as chairman of Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters.
“Everyone seemed to justify (the games) from an economic advantage point, and it did do that. There were some $3 billion in developments around Centennial Park, as we hoped,” he said.
“But the value is what was experienced in Gainesville and other places. That’s the idea of taking something that was thought to be impossible and making it happen, and know that we pulled it off. It’s something everyone can feel proud of, to be a part of the Olympic movement.
“It proves that it’s OK to dream large dreams that seem impossible to attain but can happen when a community unites behind an idea, no matter how impossible it may seem.”